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Matador Deficit Two Much

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Cal State Northridge could find a way to fall behind in warmups, it might have a chance.

The Matadors have become experts in playing from behind. Problem is, they have to get in such a deep hole before they play their best, and by then it’s too late.

As bad as the Matadors were in falling behind by 21 points early in the second half, that’s how good they were in climbing back into the game before losing, 76-74, to first-place Northern Arizona in a Big Sky Conference game before 1,488 at the Walkup Skydome on Thursday night.

Northridge (12-13, 8-7 in conference play), which had its four-game winning streak snapped and failed in its fourth try to get over .500 for the first time in seven Division I seasons, didn’t play the way it wanted to in a key test before next week’s conference tournament.

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“This was a wake-up call for us to get ready for the tournament,” said Northridge senior Tom Samson. “At least it was good to see we still have a little heart.”

No one doubted that. This was the sixth game this season the Matadors have almost come back from a double-digit second-half deficit.

Almost being the key word. They lost all six games.

“We got to the point where we were so far behind and Coach said, ‘How do you want to feel about this in the morning,’ ” said point guard Lucky Grundy, who scored 20 points for the Matadors. “We said, ‘We’ve just got to play some ball. We can’t be afraid to miss shots.’

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“And that’s when we started playing like we should play, when we have nothing to lose.”

Said Coach Bobby Braswell: “We’ve got to have that sense of urgency in the first 20 minutes that we had in the last 15.”

In that final 15 minutes, the Matadors played inspired defense, were aggressive on the boards and hit several key three-point shots to gradually slice the lead to more workable numbers.

The Matadors got within single digits, 71-62, on Grundy’s three-pointer with 2:09 to play. They trimmed the lead to four on Grundy’s driving layup with 57 seconds to play. Northern Arizona helped the Matadors stay in the game when Andrew Mavis missed a dunk with 50 seconds to play.

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Samson’s free throw with 35 seconds left brought Northridge to within 73-70. After Mavis made one of two free throws with 25 seconds left, Northridge used 17 precious seconds before Grundy’s layup with eight seconds on the clock pulled the Matadors to within 74-72.

The Lumberjacks (20-5, 13-2) finally put the Matadors to rest on Rod Hutchings’ two free throws with seven seconds left. Northridge’s Kevin Taylor made a layup with two seconds left, but the Matadors were out of timeouts.

“We have got to play all 40 minutes,” Samson said, shaking his head. “It’s what Coach told us in the locker room and we all knew it. But it’s time to start doing it and stop talking about it.”

Point guard Trenton Cross, who averaged 23.5 points in his previous six games, was held to two points on one-for-nine shooting.

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Northridge shot 36% in the first half and, worse, didn’t hustle. On one series, the Matadors forced the Lumberjacks into an off-balance shot just as the shot clock expired, but no Northridge players went for the rebound. The Lumberjacks got the ball back and Mavis hit a three-pointer.

“I though we were ready to play but we were not,” Braswell said.

“Maybe our guys thought it was going to be easy. We had won four road games in a row and people were patting them on the back. I guess they though someone was going to hand them a victory.”


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